Strategy

Age of Mythology: Extended Edition

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Use the power of the gods to rule a world of mortals and monsters.

PC Release: May 8, 2014

By Ian Coppock

Real-time strategy games can be a lot of fun, but sometimes they can also be a bit dry. Training an army and sending them to destroy a castle is a pretty straightforward process. It can allow for unexpected creativity, especially when using sheep as spies or monks to wololo, but the sight of a battle in an RTS game can be little more exciting than the minutiae that went into planning for it. There’s usually room for strategy games to liven things up a bit, be it through faster gameplay or fantastical elements, or through a compelling story. Age of Mythology: Extended Edition may very well have all of these things in spades.

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Originally released by Ensemble Studios back in 2002, Age of Mythology is a spinoff of the Age of Empires games that sends players to a mythological world — a world where the ancient gods are real, strange creatures roam the earth, and sheep can, well, still be used to spy on enemy players. Age of Mythology received near-universal acclaim when it first released, charming players and critics with its apt blend of real-time strategy gameplay and exotic mythological elements. It layered a bit of magic, a bit of mysticism, onto the fine-tuned strategic gameplay Ensemble had already pioneered with its Age of Empires games.

Age of Mythology allows players to play as the ancient Greek, Egyptian, and Norse civilizations, while a later expansion pack added the Atlanteans. The Extended Edition being reviewed here tonight rolls both games into a single title, as well as adds HD capabilities, integration with the Steam workshop, and a few graphical touch-ups. Forgotten Empires, the studio that makes the new expansions for Age of Empires II, made an expansion for Age of Mythology that adds an ancient Chinese civ to the game.

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Yeah, we COULD produce soldiers and siege weapons, but can’t we just put our spears down and make some gyros instead?

Each civilization in Age of Mythology has its own gods to worship, from the Greek Zeus to the Norse Odin. Players can choose one of three major gods to worship within each civ, and this selection has a massive impact on how the player’s culture will grow. Because of this dynamic, Age of Mythology provides much more variety than a total selection of 4-5 playable civs might suggest. Even though Zeus and Poseidon belong to the same Greek culture, two Greek players picking each god will end up with noticeably different bases and armies. The same can be said of Egyptian players who pick Ra or Set, Norse players who pick Thor or Loki, etc etc.

After picking a major god, players are given a town center and a few villagers, which is classic Age of Empires. And, just like in the Age of Empires games, villagers can go out into the wilderness to gather wood, food, and gold. Unlike Age of EmpiresAge of Mythology features a fourth resource called favor, a sort of godly currency that allows players to train mythological creatures and research top-tier technologies. Each civ has its own way of gaining favor that reflects its respective gods. Because the Greek gods are vain, Greek players gain favor by assigning villagers to worship at temples. The Norse, by contrast, gain favor by killing enemy units and are therefore way more bada**.

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If only prayer was this awesome in real life.

As players gather resources, they can grow their civilization by building out a town and training military units. Similarly to other Ensemble strategy games, the key to success in Age of Mythology is a strong economy. Gathered resources do no good unless they’re being spent, which means that players can expect nonstop unit production and technology research. With a proper balance of resource income and military buildup, players can train enough troops to defend their town or go on the offensive in relatively short order. Research allows for units to be faster and deadlier, and for buildings to be better fortified against attacks.

The mechanic of advancing to a new age returns in Age of Mythology, with a twist. When advancing to the next age, players can pick from one of two minor gods within their civilization. Like the major league gods picked at the start of the game, these gods have perks and rewards that can alter playstyle. Bast, a minor Egyptian goddess, grants agriculture benefits, while Greek party boy Dionysus improves certain unit attacks through the power of… alcohol? Different assortments of minor gods will appear depending on which major god is picked.

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Thor shows favor to those who doth freeze their butts off in the middle of nowhere.

Minor gods provides two perks that definitively set Age of Mythology apart from Ensemble’s other strategy games. The first is that each minor god has his or her own mythological unit, which can be trained at the temple. These units are usually pretty expensive and always cost at least a bit of favor, but they excel at destroying human enemies. Frankly, each civilization provides some pretty awesome monsters to train. The Greeks have centaurs, of course, but later in the game they can also build giant colossi that tower over the battlefield. The Egyptians, who are apparently fans of The Mummy franchise, can train up plague-bearing zombies and half-arachnid, half-Dwayne Johnson scorpion men. The Norse have dragons. Because they are the best.

Over the course of the game, players can also acquire something even more pivotal to gameplay in Age of Mythology: god powers. This is where Age of Mythology‘s ability to shake up the dryness of the Age of Empires formula really comes into play, and where players can change the course of a battle in a split second. Whether it’s conjuring a lightning storm that kills every enemy on the field, or an earthquake that swallows an entire town, players can harness the powers of the gods to shatter foes in ways that human armies can’t. This mechanic adds dire unpredictability to an Age of Mythology match, because players never know if that town they’re about to sack is packing a meteor shower. Some powers can be used multiple times; others, only once.

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The most fervent players build their bases in hell. Better fire powers down here.

Like the Age of Empires games, the units in Age of Mythology are unknowing participants in a massive game of rock-paper-scissors. Cavalry beats archers, infantry beats cavalry, myth units beat infantry, etc etc. Players have a much greater chance of beating the opponent by building an army composed of several different unit types. It’s tempting for wealthy players to simply field an all-myth unit army, but even the monsters in Age of Mythology have an Achilles’ heel: heroes. Each civilization can train specially gifted human heroes that can put even the mightiest minotaur to shame.

Because of myth units and god powers, matches in Age of Mythology are usually a great deal more chaotic (and fun) than their Age of Empires counterparts. It’s fun to surprise the opponent with a massive column of cyclops, and the sight of monsters can strike more terror in an opponent than the columns of human troops to which RTS games are restricted. God powers can make or break a match, and knowing when to use them adds a novel bluffing element to Age of Mythology. 

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It ain’t no San Francisco, but this fisherman’s wharf will have to do.

For players who are new to real-time strategy games or lukewarm on the idea of multiplayer, Age of Mythology features a single-player story campaign. Unlike the campaigns in the Age of Empires games, which are often split between multiple civs or characters, Age of Mythology features a single, massive campaign starring Arkantos, an Atlantean general, as he travels the world in pursuit of the evil cyclops Gargarensis. The campaign is by far the most compelling narrative Ensemble Studios ever crafted; the writing isn’t great, but its 30+ mission length allows for a surprising amount of character development, exciting battles, and references to ancient myths.

The other neat thing about the campaign is that even though Arkantos is Atlantean, his campaign is split into roughly three chapters that cycle through usage of Greek, Egyptian, and Norse units, whom Arkantos rallies to his cause as he journeys around the world. It’s a novel way to introduce each civilization to the player while in the context of a grand adventure. Plus, with each level featuring missions ranging from infiltration to massive battles, players won’t be hurting for level or objective variety. Because the Extended Edition of this game includes the aforementioned Atlantean expansion, players can play another, albeit much shorter, campaign starring Arkantos’s son Kastor. Despite its reduced length, its scenario variety rivals that of the main campaign.

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The story of Arkantos is hands down the best story campaign Ensemble ever made.

Whether players are interested in the single-player campaign or a round of multiplayer, everyone’s in for quite a visual treat. Age of Mythology‘s game world is absolutely beautiful, perhaps even more so than the maps in Age of Empires III. From verdant Greek hills to scorching Egyptian deserts, Age of Mythology features a rich variety of maps inspired by locations all over the world. Each map is beautifully detailed with rugged terrain and ancient ruins, as well as populated by dozens of different animals (elephants, gazelles, zebras, polar bears, the list goes on).

The graphical improvements introduced with the Extended Edition include some well-implemented texture and resolution touch-ups, as well as a day/night cycle and better water rendering. These improvements don’t quite put Age of Mythology on graphical par with modern RTS games, but between the title’s bewildering variety of maps and strong use of color, polygonal precision falls by the wayside. Couple this with the game’s memorable, relaxing soundtrack of deep drums and Mediterranean guitar, and the result is a deeply immersive ancient world that’s a lot of fun to explore.

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(Don’t make a P.F. Chang’s joke, don’t make a P.F. Chang’s joke…)

Because it’s an older game with simple processing requirements, Age of Mythology runs problem-free on modern machines. The Extended Edition adapts the game to newer software well, and the options menu allows players to make tweaks to almost anything in case problems do occur. Though it’s not as big as Age of Empires II‘s resurgent multiplayer community, Age of Mythology has experienced a revival thanks to the Extended Edition. Players have also taken to the game’s Steam workshop with rigor, producing a few custom units, skins and even campaigns that can be downloaded for free.

Unfortunately, though, Age of Mythology is not without one major flaw, but it has less to do with the game and more to do with the Tale of the Dragon DLC released shortly after the Extended Edition. To put it frankly, it’s one of the buggiest, most poorly designed pieces of DLC on Steam, and that’s not exactly a light statement. The Chinese units the DLC adds suffer from pathing errors, and the entire production is rife with bugs and glitches. The campaign mode features a particularly game-breaking bug that casts an assassination target as an essential NPC. In short, stick with the main Age of Mythology game. It’s great. Tale of the Dragon is a hot piece of garbage.

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No no, attack the farm… attack the… attack the FARM, DAMN YOU WATER DRAGON THINGS!

Luckily for Age of Mythology, its big flaws are restricted to a single piece of DLC that can easily be glossed over in pursuit of the main game. The gameplay in Age of Mythology makes for a well-oiled strategy machine that has aged well despite having originally been released in 2002. Its multiplayer community has been resurrected, and the single-player campaign presents an affable world tour of diverse mythological lore. Strategy fans would be remiss to not add this game to their library immediately. It’s not the most popular game Ensemble Studios produced… but it is the best.

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You can buy Age of Mythology: Extended Edition here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Prophour23

Proph1

Grow body parts and defend them from hordes of insects.

PC Release: October 22, 2014

By Ian Coppock

Prophour23 is the discerning gamer’s go-to title for killing insects with internal organs. If that statement isn’t attention-grabbing enough, what about the notion of a horror real-time strategy game? Or a game played out in an art style inspired by the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci? If all of those things, niche as they may be, sound interesting, imagine them cobbled together with blood vessels and a bit of gristle. Imagine Prophour23, a gruesome entry in this month’s strategy game lineup and the subject of tonight’s review.

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Prophour23 is a game whose bizarre premise lends it a great deal of novelty. The game is a top-down strategy title that faces players off not against columns of enemy troops, but swarms of insects. Ants and cockroaches, to be precise. And what is the player attempting to prevent these baleful bugs from eating? An intricate and awesomely gross web of internal organs. It’s difficult to discern what inspired Prophour23 if not nightmares of being eaten alive by bugs, or the scarab scenes from The Mummy.

Unlike most strategy games, a round of Prophour23 is quite short, usually about 15-20 minutes. The goal of the match is to prevent the insects from destroying the player’s heart, which is positioned at the very center of the field. Players can grow other organs around the heart using blood, which pops up on the screen at regular intervals and must quickly be gathered before it dries up. Each body part serves a different function: eyes allow players to see at night, while rib cages, believe it or not, make for great protective walls.

NewProph2

Nukes can’t kill roaches, but maybe a mouth covered in thorns can.

Prophour23’s gameplay is a bit more complicated than building walls to keep out bugs. The game features a rapid day-night cycle that can render the player blind to the insects, so be sure to grow some eyeballs around the heart (bet no one expected to ever hear that piece of advice). Some organs can only function if they’re powered by a muscle, and the two have to be tethered together by a tendon. Though most structures are good for keeping the bugs out, the best way to truly destroy them is to grow thorns. Harden the heart, as it were.

Similarly to most real-time strategy games, players can grow more elaborate organs the longer they can last in the match. These higher-tier organs serve more sophisticated purposes than their mainline counterparts. Growing a stomach, for example, is a great way to harvest extra blood. However, even as the player’s organ network becomes more formidable, so too do the waves of insects that ooze in from the screen’s edges to eat the player’s heart. Organs can sometimes cease functioning or even become diseased, and maintaining all of them is one of the game’s biggest challenges.

Proph3

Ohhhhhhhh gross gross gross gross GROSS!

Prophour23‘s bizarre world can be a lot to take in. Players with strong stomachs probably won’t get queasy, but if the visuals and oozing animations weren’t enough, the game also comes with some super-squelchy sound effects to round out the grossness. These various elements combine to give Prophour23 a sickly, nigh-bubonic atmosphere consistent with similarly repulsive survival horror games. Fighting off rounds of cockroaches with diseased eyeballs just seems to have that effect… for some reason.

No matter the strength of the player’s stomach, though, Prophour23 seems to have a hard time stomaching its own gameplay. The game’s tutorials, while extensive, do a poor job of explaining how exactly to play the game. There’s a difference between illustrating the function of each organ and illustrating how best to use it in-game. There’s also scant inspiration for how the organs are supposed to function together, which is an obvious problem for a game that casts itself as being built up on strategy. Each tutorial is also played in a far, far shorter round than that of the main game mode.

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Aaaand the armbone connects to the, uh… eye… bone?

It’s especially unfortunate that this game’s tutorials don’t quite do their job, because Prophour23 is a difficult game. That 15-20 minute round seems short on paper, but when constant streams of cockroaches come pouring in from around the map, it seems quite a bit longer. Much like a night at Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza, success in Prophour23 requires constant and meticulous micromanagement. That’s hardly something to be missed in a strategy game, but multitasking on a jacked up difficulty without an adequate tutorial? Not great.

Yes, the secret to success in Prophour23 is to “git gud” and endure the sight of countless hearts exploding before getting anywhere decent. Though the game’s high difficulty may be a turn-off to casual strategy fans, it provides an inadvertent boon to someone who’s conquered all the things in other RTS titles and is looking for something fresh. There’s an innate satisfaction in crushing a bunch of cockroaches with the force of pure screaming, and then going home and playing Prophour23.

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Medieval warfare as imagined by a Bodyworlds exhibit.

Although Prophour23 makes itself difficult to get into and is then (literally) bloody challenging, its gameplay is truly one-of-a-kind. It’s no hyperbole to say that Prophour23 is the only game out there where players grow organs to fend off bugs, and the novelty of that premise means that, for all its flaws, the game is quite creative. It envisions a gross world of homeless human organs protecting themselves from pestilence, and excels at carrying that hair-raising atmosphere endemic to other horror-themed titles.

It’s also not unfair to also say that Prophour23 is as much a tower defense game as a real-time strategy title, what with each organ serving a distinct purpose and endless foes to beat back. Prophour23‘s RTS elements come primarily in the form of gathering resources, and paying lots of attention to how structures are laid out and the battle is being fought. Organs can be moved around to defend against new streams of insects, which is handy, and players can use organs to activate additional combat abilities.

NewProph6

Ew…

Prophour23’s gameplay and atmosphere found a perfect match in the title’s art style. Inspired by the anatomy drawings of Leonardo da Vinci, each background in Prophour23 bears the appearance of a weathered page from one of his sketchbooks. The organs themselves are drawn out in a style similar to da Vinci’s, and everything from the game’s gorgeous font to illustrations of medical implements is pure Renaissance. The options menu underpinning these features isn’t great, but Prophour23 runs well and its visual simplicity precludes processing issues. The game’s performance is much more bug-free than its matches (ba dum tss).

The soundtrack is also awesomely gross, with a collection of sickly sweet violin strings and deeper, darker tones that accompany each match. If Prophour23 demonstrates difficulty with welcoming new players, it compels them to stay with its beautiful and highly original artwork. It isn’t quite pretty enough to make players forget that they’re growing body organs to fend off bugs, but it’s not supposed to; it reinforces the game’s diseased vibe and novel premise.

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“Enough blood to grow thorns” sounds like the title of a book of poetry.

Prophour23 gouges itself in the eye with its underwhelming tutorials and high difficulty, but players who can surmount these design flaws are in for a memorable strategy experience. It scratches that resource management itch as only an RTS game can, while also providing a deeply unsettling atmosphere endemic to the horror genre. All of this is played out against a smart backdrop: a living anatomy sketchbook. No other visual setting would’ve fit this game’s premise so perfectly. Prophour23 won’t suit all tastes but it’s definitely worth at least trying. See how managing columns of troops translates to growing body organs and experience a whole new kind of bug repellent.

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You can buy Prophour23 here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Fallout Shelter

Fall1

Manage your very own colony of nuclear apocalypse survivors.

PC Release: March 29, 2017

By Ian Coppock

The threat of nuclear apocalypse used to be all the rage. Students were told that hiding under wooden desks was a great way to protect themselves from a hydrogen bomb, and the United States and Soviet Union together made enough nukes to blow up the world… 15 times? Something like that? Anyway, nuclear Armageddon fell out of fashion when the Cold War ended, but with a belligerent Russia on the rise and a thin-skinned narcissist in the White House, the topic’s gained traction once more. How might one survive in the event of a nuclear apocalypse? Fallout Shelter, the subject of tonight’s review, might have some answers on that.

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Fallout Shelter is a survival management game that was originally released in 2015 as a companion title to Fallout 4. Rather than focusing on exploring a vast wasteland full of danger, Fallout Shelter casts players as the overseer of a vault, a shelter created to protect humans from the series’ titular nuclear fallout. It’s up to players to create their own vault, build it deep underground, and keep their vault dwellers happy and productive.

The original version of Fallout Shelter was a mobile game, but the version being reviewed tonight is the recently released PC port. Even more than ports from a console, mobile ports are very hit-and-miss on PC, with Square Enix’s Deus Ex: The Fall being perhaps the worst such game. Although mobile ports warrant suspicion from PC gamers, the Fallout universe is one of those properties that can’t not warrant some love and attention, so Fallout Shelter deserves a fair shot.

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Oosh. Looks like what a 60’s advertising exec has nightmares about.

Fallout Shelter kicks things off by giving players a randomized vault number, as well as a disappointingly scant tutorial on how its mechanics run, from building new rooms in the facility to managing the happiness of its inhabitants. The gist of Fallout Shelter is not hard to understand: keep the vault growing and keep the people inside content with their lives (or as content as can be expected in a nuclear wasteland). Players also have to manage their vault’s supply of food, water, and power. Run low on these things and the vault will have an apocalypse of its own.

Provided they have enough bottle caps and Blanco Mac’n’Cheese, players can expand their vault’s population with a few different mechanics. They can either assign male and female vault dwellers to the living quarters to “calibrate the reactor”, or invite outsiders to come in. That last one’s a curious break with the vault policies seen in the main Fallout games, but it makes sense for maintaining a steady stream of people and keeping the game moving along. Of course, new people can’t be let in if the vault can’t support them, so be sure to have a big enough stock of Mirelurk meat. Players can also send their dwellers out into the wastes to scavenge for supplies.

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The “greetings, the player has assigned us to reproduce” subtext here is actually pretty horrifying.

Although the basic gist of Fallout Shelter is hardly anything that the Sims or other management games haven’t done before on PC, the game’s smartphone mechanics are where things start to get dicey. This is one of those mobile games where players task their minions on something, put their phone away, and check back an hour later when that task has been done. It takes only a few moments for players to find something for their vault dwellers to do; the actual bulk of the game, the task’s completion, is something that the player is meant to be entirely absent for.

That style of gameplay might work on a smartphone, but it doesn’t exactly work on a PC. PC gaming is meant to be a much more involved experience than mobile, and can’t be hopped in and out of quite like mobile gaming. Sitting and waiting on a dweller to finish mopping up Radroach guts does not make for compelling gameplay. It could make for an interesting little story, but Fallout Shelter nixes any sort of narrative in favor of pure task management. The vast majority of this game is spent sitting and waiting for tasks to be done… maybe a crisis will pop up here or there but mostly it’s just watching the little Vault Boy-esque sprites run hither and yon (more like hither and yawn).

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Well, at least I found Dogmeat.

The assertion that Fallout Shelter eats up loads of waiting time isn’t entirely true. Players can skip waiting around and get right to the exciting parts… for a price. Yes, just like many mobile titles out there, Fallout Shelter is a pay-to-win title. Players who are tired of spinning their wheels can pay a few bucks here and there to speed things up a bit. Players can also buy out the game’s stocks of perks, like high-powered weapons, that can otherwise take hours or days of waiting to attain.

This mechanic is another reason why mobile ports tend to be coolly received on PC: microtransactions are cancer. The pay-to-win model is built entirely around coercing impatient gamers into forking over much more money than they probably planned. It’s a predatory, exploitative style of game design that takes advantage of its own lack of entertainment to convince gamers that maybe, just maybe, there’s something better around that $5 pay window. Well, there’s not. But hey, if you pay 10 more dollars…

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Can we build an escape pod?

Fallout Shelter is not without some redeeming qualities, like a beautiful art style centered around the main games’ Vault-Tec advertisements, but any potential this game had to be a charming management simulator is weighed down by its reliance on microtransactions. Even by mobile gaming standards, this title is not afraid to get in players’ faces and demand an obscene amount of money just for the chance to keep things interesting. The game’s drop-in, drop-out playstyle also doesn’t quite translate to the PC, a gaming machine that is much more difficult to fit into a pocket than a smartphone.

Luckily for PC gamers, there are thousands of titles out there that ask for one flat rate up front and guarantee hours of fun with no pay windows. Fallout Shelter is not one of them. The game’s fleeting homages to the main titles’ universe are screamed out by constant windows reminding players that the game can be sped up for a few extra dollars, effectively admitting that its own gameplay is a bore. If sitting around waiting hours for dwellers to complete tasks sounds fun, go wild. Players looking for a more involved, less predatory management sim should look elsewhere.

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You can buy Fallout Shelter here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Age of Empires III: Complete Collection

Age1

Explore the New World and build a thriving colonial empire.

PC Release: October 18, 2005

By Ian Coppock

Even though Mass Effect: Andromeda didn’t quite stick the landing, there’s something to be said for that grand sense of exploration that the game espoused. In the months leading up to the game, Andromeda‘s Facebook page spouted off a bunch of quotes from explorers; and the actual game, however poorly, made seeing the unknown one of its central motifs. That drive to explore is at the heart of a lot of great games, some of which actually stuck the landing, and it’s also at the heart of tonight’s game: Age of Empires III.

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Age of Empires III is a real-time strategy game and one of the last games developed by Ensemble Studios before that developer shut down in 2009. The game was developed as a sequel to Age of Empires II, but rather than focusing on the age of knights and castles, Age of Empires III hones in on the European discovery and colonization of the Americas (think 1400’s-1800’s). The base game shipped in 2005, but over the next two years Ensemble released two expansion packs adding Native American and Asian civilizations, respectively. The Age of Empires III: Complete Collection being reviewed here tonight compiles all three titles into a single game of exploration, trade, and war.

Like Age of Empires IIAge of Empires III is a strategy game that revolves around developing a civilization. Players start off from humble beginnings with a few settlers and a town center, but can quickly build that up into a bustling colonial empire. Through carefully managing resources and keeping rivals at bay, players can create a streamlined military and industrial powerhouse rivaling the most prosperous colonies of the New World era. Attaining that goal is easier said than done, but it’s what gameplay in Age of Empires III revolves around: training units, gathering resources, building up a base, and smashing the enemy.

Age2

Alright, who forgot to pack the crumpets?

As previously mentioned, players start out with a few settlers who can set out to gather resources like wood, gold, and food. Using these materials, players can train more units and build up their settlement into a thriving community. Houses, for example, let players support a larger population, while barracks allow for training soldiers. Unlike in Age of Empires II, players don’t need to gather stone, and villagers don’t need a drop-off point for the resources they’ve gathered. It’s also possible to train military units in batches of five… assuming players can cough up five paychecks at once.

Just like in Age of Empires II, the true key to winning a match in Age of Empires III is a robust economy. Players have to balance between researching new technologies, gathering resources, and building up an army to take the fight to a rival power. The Age mechanic returns to the series from Age of Empires II and allows players to advance to a new level of technological sophistication, provided they have the resources. A player in the Imperial Age, for example, can produce far more advanced weapons and tools than a player stuck in the Colonial Age.

Age3

Chichen Itza. Or, as white people call it, “Chicken Pizza.”

Age of Empires II has perhaps too many civilizations, especially with its recent expansions, but the base Age of Empires III game shipped with eight European powers that players can choose from. Some, like the Spanish, French, and British, were obvious choices to include, while the Germans are a bit of a stretch and the Ottomans were included for… who knows why? Ottomans did many amazing things, but colonizing the Americas was not one of them. The game’s Native American expansion adds the Sioux, Aztec and Iroquois powers, while the Asian Dynasties pack adds the Chinese, Japanese, and Indians.

Unlike Age of Empires II, which differentiated most of its civilizations with as little as a single unit, Age of Empires III goes to great lengths to make each of its civilizations play differently. Each civ has benefits and drawbacks corresponding to the perks of its historical counterpart. The Portuguese, for example, excel at building ships and navigating water maps. The French are great at forming partnerships with Native American tribes, while the Spanish are outstanding at telling Native Americans that they’re not Catholic enough. Similarly, each civilization has its own units and exclusive technologies. Playing as the Dutch and researching Coffee Trade is both a great way to boost the economy and to keep the entire western hemisphere caffeinated. Proost!

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A calm mountain stream running down the IS THAT A BEAR ROW AWAY RIGHT NOW

Though Age of Empires III looks mighty similar to Age of Empires II from a distance, the sequel made some major shakeups to Ensemble’s real-time strategy formula. For a start, players get an Explorer, a hero unit best used to look around the map in the early game. Explorers can be knocked out but never killed, making Age of Empires III more merciful toward its heroes than Age of Empires II. It’s also a good way to help novice players get used to the environment without paying a heavy price; no one’s to say how the Explorer only falls unconscious after rousing a den of angry bears, but sending someone to resuscitate him makes it easy to get back up and exploring in no time.

The other major innovation Ensemble made with Age of Empires III is the Home City mechanic, which allows players to request supplies and soldiers from back home. Every action in Age of Empires III gives the player experience points, with which they can click away to a beautiful rendition of their civ’s capital city and buy stuff to send across the pond. These perks come in the form of cards, which players can unlock after each match provided they earned enough experience in-game. Some cards, like a shipment of 200 gold, are fairly basic, while high-end cards like an army of Swiss mercenaries are quite a bit more valuable. Usually, more powerful cards can only be activated in late stages of the game.

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Still waiting on those crumpets, m’lord.

The Explorer and the Home City are but two of Age of Empires III‘s many changes to their RTS routine. Players can also attack neutral enemies (creeps) for resources, build trading posts to get shipments of supplies, and build alliances with local Native American tribes. The rest of the game is classic Age of Empires: start up a town, mow through acres of gold mines and pine trees, and assemble an army bristling with pikes and muskets. Start out with a few musketeers before working up to pistol-wielding dragoons or endless columns of strelet infantry. In one of the laziest gameplay implementations ever seen in an RTS, players can build a saloon and hire from a random assortment of mercenaries. The word “lazy” denotes the saloon’s hilariously anachronistic offerings, like wild west gunslingers in feudal Japan or mounted elephants in the Thirteen Colonies. Go home saloon, you’re dru — oh wait.

Like other Ensemble games, beating the opponent in Age of Empires III boils down to a game of rock-paper-scissors: artillery beats infantry, infantry sort of holds their own against cavalry sometimes, cavalry beats artillery. Employing a mix of these three unit types is a great way to guard against enemy forces and respond to whatever they’re packing. Players can turn their town into a fort for a long-term game, or rush the opponent early on if they’re feeling like taking risks. Generally, the best way to defend a town is have units stationed by the gate to immediately respond to an attack, with extra cannons at the ready to make short work of an enemy charge. Contrary-wise, the best way to attack an enemy base is pound it from afar with cannons. The enemy can either stay in their base and die, or venture out to get hit by artillery and musket fire.

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We know you have the sushi. Hand it over and no one has to die.

Although Age of Empires III‘s gameplay is smooth and allows for great variety, Ensemble deserves some flack for its portrayal of certain civilizations… specifically, the Asian and Native American ones. The big three Native civilizations can build a giant bonfire and task villagers to dance around it; depending on the dance, they can somehow increase unit training speed or the deadliness of their warriors. While such dances are certainly a matter of historical record, their implementation in Age of Empires III feels stereotypical of Native Americans. It also feels lazy, like Ensemble disregarded some of these civilizations’ actual achievements in favor of the Magical Medicine Man racist trope that’s already plagued Native portrayals in other media.

Even more galling are some of the portrayals Ensemble made of Asian civilizations, like that Japanese monks have the power to tame wild animals for battle, or that their soldiers can call upon what basically amounts to the power of the Iron Fist to aid them in combat. Inexplicable mind powers and magic charms not only do not belong in a real-time strategy game that claims grounding in history, they perpetuate racist portrayals of Asian peoples that, unfortunately, have been common in western media for centuries. “Never mind that these civilizations fielded (and continue to field) some of the mightiest armies in world history — let’s fall back on the trope of warrior monks who can call upon earth magic.” Ensemble struck a rich vein of cringe with these ridiculous design decisions.

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Of course they’re asking the Buddha for help… and of course it has a magical power to use.

Although some of Age of Empires III‘s human portrayals raise a lot of questions, their environments inspire much more awe. Though the visuals have aged a bit since 2005, Age of Empires III remains a colorful and engaging game, with huge maps that burst with color and detail. Zooming in on those details isn’t always pretty on the eyes, but Age of Empires III encompasses a vibrant New World from the steppes of Argentina all the way up to the frozen wastes of the Yukon. New maps were added with the game’s two expansions, including a stunning palette of Asian territories, and these are bundled together in the Complete Collection as well.

Though the emphasis of all of these maps is undoubtedly for multiplayer, Age of Empires III also allows less social gamers to compete against the computer. These days, with the game’s multiplayer as dead as it is, this is usually the only recourse for players spoiling for a fight. The game also features a single-player campaign that follows the fictitious Black family as they journey to the New World, but this narrative isn’t much to speak of. Neither are the stunted story campaigns offered up by the Native American or Asian civilizations. They make for some passably entertaining history-babble and offer some cool campaign-exclusive units, but that’s about it.

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Now THIS is what I call a base!

So, what is Age of Empires III, exactly? It’s a beautifully rendered real-time strategy game that makes up for in variety what it lacks in speed. It’s a smart, streamlined game whose civilizations offer a great amount of gameplay variety at the expense of some shockingly racist portrayals. What is the modern RTS fan to make of all that? Well, online multiplayer is pretty much dead. Age of Empires III‘s online community can’t hold a candle to the resurgence Age of Empires II has enjoyed, and probably never will, but local multiplayer is not unheard of. Additionally, there’s a lot of fun to be had in exploring these beautiful landscapes, whether at the helm of a custom colony or through the eyes of the exceptionally ordinary story campaigns.

Most RTS fans will probably prefer a game with a living community, and time has not been kind to some of Age of Empires III‘s gameplay elements, but the game still succeeds in capturing that grand sense of exploration mentioned earlier. There’s a lot to explore in the game’s vast assortment of maps, and a sense of accomplishment that comes with starting a profile and watching colonies swell. Whether those elements are enough to warrant a purchase is up to the players to decide, but for anything that can be said about Age of Empires III‘s decline in recent years, it captured those elements well.

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You can buy Age of Empires III here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

King of Booze: Drinking Game

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Race your friends to the bottom of an alcohol-infused board game.

PC Release: September 9, 2016

By Ian Coppock

Homer Simpson once said that alcohol is the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems. Whether it’s a cheap beer at the bar or a glass of something more expensive with a classy ladyfriend, booze is an endemic part of humanity. It gives the timid courage to open up about themselves, and the adventurous cause for even zanier, well, adventures. Tonight’s video game (the review of which was written while heavily under the influence) celebrates the fun, and chaos, of alcohol and brings people together to celebrate it. King of Booze, while not a narrative-heavy game nor a particularly high-budget creation, is that game.

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King of Booze is a multiplayer adventure game created by Daygames, confectioners of video games for the modern alcoholic. Whether it’s simply a Friday night after a long week, or perhaps the upcoming St. Patrick’s Day, there are few settings that King of Booze: Drinking Game is inappropriate for. Well, maybe more than a few, but the versatility of the game is the point I’m trying to make through this infernal cloud of drunkenness. Truly, Art as Games has fallen from grace when we’ve gone from reviewing serious art games to drunkenly stumbling through a booze board game at 8:00 PM on a Friday night, but hey; everyone has to cut loose every once in a while, and that’s precisely what King of Booze is meant to help catalyze.

King of Booze is a local co-op game meant for 2-4 players. The game is set up like a conventional board game, with each player getting their own wacky avatar. The goal of the game is simple: roll the dice, move around the board however many spaces, complete challenge that pops up, and ultimate out-drink foes in a shameless quest for drunken glory. Some of the challenges that come up are pretty tame, like taking a drink. Others might be quite a bit more outrageous, like giving another player a massage. Because local co-op games are best played in the living room, King of Booze comes packed with full controller support. Adjusting the resolution is about the only option on its options menu, though.

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Ooooooh boy.

That’s pretty much all there is to King of Booze. There’s no deep narrative compelling the colorful avatars on the board, no deep dialogue driving a relationship between them. The point is simply to get drunk, and have fun while doing so. While not necessarily a game of choice for the solitary story seeker or the multiplayer enthusiast whose performance depends on precision, King of Booze does an admirable job of including gamers both casual and hardcore. How? Well, all one has to do to “git gud” at King of Booze is drink. No grinding, no years of built-up skill, just access to booze and having fun while doing so.

King of Booze‘s inclusiveness goes beyond its alcohol-driven gameplay. The game packs plenty of challenges both benign and dangerous for adventurous alcoholics, but it also allows players to come up with their own challenges. Got a really great inside joke, or want to drive an opponent to madness with a challenge they’ll hate? Players can create these and other cards in the game’s customization menu. The challenges the game comes packaged with can’t be removed, so players who are averse to the idea of potentially being put up to downing a raw egg might get a bit queasy, but rules are flexible amongst friends. Maybe skip that challenge.

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Assassin’s Booze. Haha. Hahaha (I’ll be here all week).

King of Booze also allows players to decide how big the round’s “drink” will be. When a player lands on a “drink” space, the game leaves the size of the drink to be drunk nebulous. Making the drink size something that the players can consider is a good way to include gamers who don’t want to go quite as crazy as the challenge card “grind on Player A’s crotch” implies that they should. Whether a drink is a sip of Scotch or half a beer, players can establish that ground rule for themselves before embarking upon a round of King of Booze.

Of course, given how many drinks King of Booze expects its players to take, it’s probably safe to assume that the portions are supposed to be small. Some spaces on the board demand that players take upwards of 4-8 “drinks” once their turn ends. Actually, no, perhaps that’s a decent amount of drinks to take. The human liver is actually pretty amazing. Miraculous, even. It siphons harmful chemicals out of the body and develops cirrhosis so that the rest of the body doesn’t have to. Crazy.

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Oooh. Things are about to get steamy.

To further reinforce its party vibe, King of Booze is decked out in adorable, colorful graphics not dissimilar to other lighthearted indie games reviewed on this page recently (cough*Flix and Chill*cough). Don’t expect to find detailed facial features on King of Booze‘s avatars, but everything else in the game, even the salacious challenge panels, are cute and colorful. It all makes for a charming aesthetic.

A bit less charming is the game’s soundtrack. Sure, the various little songs packaged into the game’s background noise are cute, but they’re also canned, royalty-free songs that anyone who watches even a bit of YouTube will recognize. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the songs are pretty generic, and don’t do a great job of reinforcing this title’s party vibe. The other sound effects in this game sound depressingly canned, with noticeable tinges of static after the cracking open of a new beer. It’s not the end of the world to hear these sounds in-game, but it does reinforce the feeling of cheapness. Which, with a game that’s all about getting drunk, isn’t great.

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That is one sad ketchup-covered wooden tombstone.

As previously alluded to, there’s a lot of fun that goes into King of Booze. It does a good job of transitioning the drinking game format (think Kings Cup) to a video game, and helping to ensure a level playing field for gamers who might not play all that often. It’s an easy game to pick up and get absolutely sozzled over, and that it’s done with good friends makes it even funner.

Additionally, some of the challenges present in King of Booze make for great drinking fun. Players who don’t want to get too out of hand with the challenges can create their own in the game’s back-end menus. In the end, it’s a customized experience that allows for a lot of fun between friends, or soon-to-be-friends.

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ALL THE CHALLENGES

Although King of Booze doesn’t take all that long to figure out, the game has some potential depth to it that’s worth noting. Even if some of the challenges in this game are crazy, like downing a raw egg, it’s a good opportunity to see how well friends can persevere in the face of pure drunkenness. Who would be willing to wear nothing but a beer box in front of their friends? Or perhaps kiss that one acquaintance for whom a latent crush has burned? King of Booze‘s challenges can lead to all sorts of insanity, but they can also lead to new revelations about friendships. Maybe I’m just extremely drunk, but some friendships are forged in the fires of drunkenness. King of Booze affords players precisely those chances.

On a less profound note, perhaps wearing nothing but a beer box in front of friends is supposed to allow for humor, not deep friendship. For King of Booze‘s various challenges do allow for plenty of humor, from attempting push-ups while drunk to confessing “love” to various acquaintances. Even if some of King of Booze‘s challenges are a bit extreme, they allow for a lot of comedy, and comedy can fuel new friendships just as reliably as the “honor” of wearing a beer box.

Am I even making sense at this point?

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Nope. No way is my BAC that low.

King of Booze doesn’t set out to tell a profound narrative or shake the very definition of art as games, but it does set out to provide a fun time for friends and acquaintances, and largely succeeds in that mission. Some of its sound effects are a bit cheap, and its options menu is way too small, but it’s a fun little diversion from the end-of-week blues or a novel St. Patrick’s Day celebration. Plus, the game is only three bucks, and can reliably produce an amount of fun far exceeding that amount of money.

I only hope this review reliably produced information whose usefulness far exceeds my state of severe inebriation. While King of Booze isn’t getting out of here without a solid recommendation, please remember to drink responsibly. Don’t drink and drive, don’t let friends do it, and stay safe out there. Thanks for reading and happy St. Patrick’s Day!

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You can buy King of Booze here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Sniper Elite 4

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Stop the Nazis from (literally) torpedoing the Allied invasion of Italy.

PC Release: February 14, 2017

By Ian Coppock

For Honor teaches that it’s fun to kill things noisily. There’s something so merry about hopping into a roaring battlefield full of screaming soldiers and leaving bloody stumps where heads used to be. Charging headlong into battle is all well and good, but that approach is a bit more complicated when the enemies have guns. It’s also more complicated when the protagonist doesn’t have a legion of troops at their back. In fact, in the case of tonight’s review, the hero is completely by himself. But is he any good with guns? Not sure, but the title “Sniper Elite 4” might offer a clue. Let’s find out.

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Sniper Elite 4 is the fourth installment in Rebellion Developments’ cult World War II sniper series (fifth if one counts the Zombie Army Trilogy spin-off). The game features the return of series protagonist Karl Fairburne, an inveterate OSS sniper who specializes in forcing bullets through Nazis’ brains from a far distance. Likewise, Sniper Elite 4 marks the return of the Sniper Elite series’s emphasis on tactics. This game ain’t no Call of Duty, where the hero wades headfirst through neat rows of enemies. No, this is more of a… hunting game.

Set immediately after Karl’s North African Nazi hunt in Sniper Elite IIISniper Elite 4 sees this steely eyed, gravelly voiced killing machine off to Italy. Karl stopped the Nazis from developing a super-weapon in Sniper Elite III, but wouldn’t you know it, those dastardly Germans are already hard at work building a new one somewhere in the verdant Italian countryside. General Dwight D. Eisenhower orders Fairburne to travel to Italy on a twofold mission: stop this new threat before it can impede the Allied invasion of Italy, and help the local anti-fascist rebels take the fight to Mussolini. With rifle in hand and the word “Nazi” in the clip, Karl sets off to do just that.

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I wonder how hard it is to goose-walk with a bullet lodged in the brain.

The Sniper Elite series is built from the ground up to be a stealth shooter, and Sniper Elite 4 is the purest incarnation yet of this motif. Rather than charge blindly into Nazi strongholds, players have to use tactics to manage one sniper against entire battalions of foes. Karl has finite health and ammunition, so his best chance is to be sneaky. Players can slip across the map stabbing Nazis up close or shoot them from afar with the game’s titular sniper rifles. Like its predecessors, Sniper Elite 4 also allows players to use grenades and deploy various types of minds. The tripwire charges are particularly… messy.

Before going any further, it’s also worth noting that Sniper Elite 4 is built from the ground up to run well on PC. The game has an impressive suite of options that allow for tweaks to virtually all its visual and audio facets, leaving players with no shortage of recourse if the game doesn’t boot up the first time. It’ll probably at least boot up, because Sniper Elite 4 also runs phenomenally well. It can maintain a constant 60fps framerate and run virtually devoid of bugs. Much like Karl’s rifle, Sniper Elite 4 is a fine-tuned, surgically precise weapon.

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See any pizza? If it has anchovies on it, shoot it.

Although the Nazi superweapon in Sniper Elite III remained secret for most of that game, the one in Sniper Elite 4 is introduced about two seconds in: a radio-controlled missile that can sink even the biggest ships. Much like his hunt for Nazi engineers in Sniper Elite III, Karl immediately sets about traversing Italy in search of the Germans behind this new project. He discovers that the missile’s development is being spearheaded by Heinz Bohm, a Nazi general so good at eluding assassins that no one knows where he is or even what he looks like. He also has a reputation for being bloodthirsty and psychotic, so… that’s pretty neat.

Along the way, Karl also embeds himself with the Partisans (no, not Saw Gerrerra’s), a group of Italian rebels led by a particularly fierce gunslinger nicknamed “the Angel.” Karl is also accompanied by Jack Weaver, an American spymaster who sounds and looks like Steve Buscemi. Even with these allies at his side, though, Karl is in for a pretty solitary mission against the Nazi menace.

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Not a train you want to see comin’ round the mountain.

The player has a lot of options for how exactly Karl goes about this solitary mission. The most obvious choice and the American government’s number-one-recommended method for Nazi-hunting is a sniper rifle, of which Sniper Elite 4 has many. Most, like the almighty Mosin-Nagant, return from previous games, but the game also adds a few new Italian rifles to the armory. As in previous Sniper Elite games, each rifle offers different rates of fire, recoil and accuracy. Players who like the action up-close and personal might consider a rapid-fire rifle, while lone wolf players who refuse to shoot anything closer than a mile away might want a slower, steadier gun.

Just like in previous games, Karl can steady his breathing to make his shots more accurate- a little red targeting box shows up to aid the player on lower difficulties. Karl can shoot Nazis from afar and move before the Nazis pinpoint his position, or he can fire while his gun’s masked by a noise from, say, an airplane. Or perhaps a conveniently placed generator. The Sniper Elite series’ infamous x-ray kill-cam also returns in gory glory in Sniper Elite 4, showing players a gruesomely detailed slo-mo of the skeletal and other damage Karl’s bullets do to Nazis’ bodies. Sniper Elite 4 also introduces the kill-cam for melee kills so that players can see just how many tendons their combat knife severs. It’s gory, it’s provocative, it’s oh so satisfying.

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Wait… why aren’t beer and sausages pouring out?

As in previous Sniper Elite games, the sniper rifles in Sniper Elite 4 handle quite well. It can be tricky to find the perfect shooting perch, much less so to lie down in a prone position and start picking fascists off from afar, but the rifles are fun to use. Players can also pick a pistol (the Welrod, which has a silencer, is highly recommended) as well as a medium-weight secondary weapon like an SMG or shotgun. The secondary weapon has only one noise setting, though: loud. Best only to use it if Karl’s location is discovered. Luckily, Karl’s much better with secondary weapons than Sniper Elite V2 allowed, so players aren’t screwed if the Nazis hem them in.

Sniper Elite III is well-known for completely overhauling the gameplay of Sniper Elite V2, replacing Karl’s regenerating health with a medkit system and making all manner of fixes and polishes. Sniper Elite 4 takes III‘s refinements even further: Karl can now run while crouched (insanely helpful for getting somewhere quietly) and can now perform ledge kills on unsuspecting foes. As with Sniper Elite III, the game’s medkit-style health system makes it impossible for players to charge in loudly and then run off somewhere to heal. Co-op fans will be delighted to know that this game’s campaign can be played, well, co-op? What’s better than one Nazi hunter? Two Nazi hunters.

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SMELL MY PALM. SMELL IT.

Sniper Elite 4 also adds a light RPG system, something previous Sniper Elite games have never toyed with before. Karl can gain points in each level through completing side missions and creatively killing his foes. As he ranks up, he can access new perks that enhance his abilities in the field, like being more accurate with a gun or regenerating a bit of health. Players can pick new perks for Karl every five levels, with a Mass Effect-style system of choosing between two perks at each landmark.

Karl can also spend his hard-earned points on new weapons. Unlike Sniper Elite III, which gave Karl an entire arsenal from the get-go, players have to unlock most of Sniper Elite 4‘s armory through good old hard work. Players can also upgrade their rifles like in Sniper Elite III, but this system has been reduced from colorful weapon mods to abstract stat increases. Instead of buying a new leather stock, Karl simply buys a 10% increase to his rifle’s recoil dampening. The two are functionally identical, but III‘s system added some color to the Sniper Elite world. Reducing rifle mods to stats buys is a bit boring.

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No accessories for Karl, unfortunately.

Although Sniper Elite 4‘s gameplay receives a few tune-ups here and there, by far the game’s biggest shakeup over its predecessors is its level design. The levels in Sniper Elite 4 are huge. Leagues and fathoms bigger than the ones in V2, and several times bigger than even Sniper Elite III‘s impressively sized levels. More than being larger in size, though, Sniper Elite 4‘s levels introduce vertical travel to the series. Karl can now climb up ledges and buildings to get to higher areas, and he’ll have to in order to complete some of these missions. Sniper Elite 4‘s eight levels are all riddled with even more terrain variations than the levels in Sniper Elite III, which gives players the challenge of finding higher ground to shoot from.

This also means that Sniper Elite 4 is considerably longer than Sniper Elite IIIIII‘s levels weren’t small, but they also weren’t huge. Even players who spent time perched in a tower tagging Nazis could still expect to beat the game in 5-6 hours. Sniper Elite 4‘s expanded levels mean more travel time, and this game clocks in at a much more satisfying 9-10 hours. Each mission also features a plethora of side missions for Karl to undertake on the way to his main objectives, from sabotaging German air defenses to destroying the Italian army’s entire ricotta supply.

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The Lasagna Wars of 1943. Terrible, absolutely terrible.

In addition to being larger and taller, the levels of Sniper Elite 4 are absolutely gorgeous. These are the most beautiful Italian countrysides in gamedom since 2009’s Assassin’s Creed II. Karl’s journey through fascist Italy takes him through a delectable palette of Italian environments. Old seaside towns, soaring canyons, forested hills, Tuscan villages and even the frigid Italian Alps are but a handful of the places Karl visits in Sniper Elite 4. Each environment is overloaded with bright colors and gorgeous multifaceted lighting setups, leaving players with lots to gawk at even as they violently explode Nazis’ heads from afar. Couple this with immersive wilderness and village sound design, and the result is an Italian vacation. With an explosion or two.

Indeed, there’s something inherently tragic about the juxtaposition of dark German war machinery onto the delicate Italian landscape. Karl will happen upon majestic mountain valleys stained with the steel of German weaponry. It’s a motif that draws intellectual as well as visual interest, demonstrating that there was nothing the Nazis were unwilling to spoil in their quest for world domination. This makes players all the more adamant about blowing Nazi stuff up and helping the Partisans take their land back.

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Sniper Elite 4 is beautiful.

Although the Sniper Elite series is known for solid tactical gunplay and expansive environments, Rebellion Developments has never been good at storytelling. Sniper Elite V2‘s narrative is skeletal, and Sniper Elite III basically doesn’t have one. The studio has seemed more preoccupied with delivering an authentic sniper experience, but the abject lack of storytelling has left all of this series’s games feeling a bit dry.

As for Sniper Elite 4, well… it has a narrative! No kidding! It has exposition, a cast of characters, and has more than the until-now customary two seconds of dialogue from Karl. It only took Rebellion four games, but players can finally get a glimpse of who this guy really is. Karl has the chance to speak with the Partisans and his OSS handler before each mission, and the conversations, while not groundbreaking, make Karl an instantly likable character. Stoic, yet sarcastic. Heroic, yet pragmatic. Through these conversations Karl can learn more about the history of fascist Italy and little-known snippets about the anti-fascist rebels operating during the time. Most missions also feature cutscenes with additional dialogue.

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This game has talking! And a cohesive story! What will they think of next?

Before anyone gets too excited, it’s worth remembering that this game’s narrative is not some sort of magnum opus. Characters develop very little, and the dialogue, while interesting, does not take up the bulk of the game. But, Rebellion Developments is to be commended for including a plot that threads through all the levels. Karl learns about other characters’ lives and the story does include an interesting twist or two (he may or may not have to make a deal with the local Mafia, for example).

In previous Sniper Elite games, Rebellion tried and failed to elicit empathy by killing off an NPC Karl knew, but these were pathetic efforts. V2‘s tragic death was enacted moments after Karl met the character, and III‘s occurred the level after meeting the deceased. Karl would become angry at this death, ostensibly to compel the player to kill more Nazis, but the effort fell flat because the characters died before the players could connect with them. This time, Karl has game-long connections with people, and their deaths are subsequently much more meaningful and touching. Sniper Elite 4 is the first game in this series to inspire genuine rage against Nazi characters through dialogue alone. It’s not amazing, it’s certainly no narrative masterwork, but it’s a refreshing change of pace for a Sniper Elite game.

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I want to help these people, and not just because the game told me to.

Sniper Elite 4 is a tremendous shooter, one that took what Sniper Elite III pioneered and added expanded levels and a story. Not a super-deep story, but a coherent, surprisingly charming plot all the same. Once again, Rebellion has demonstrated an uncanny knack for fixing what was wrong with a previous installment in their series, making Sniper Elite 4 the best of its saga and arguably one of the greatest tactical shooters ever made. Stealth-heads and shooter fans won’t want to miss this silky smooth and solidly satisfying title. From its gorgeous Italian vistas to its gruesomely indulgent headshots, Sniper Elite 4 leaves the discerning shooter fan wanting for little.

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You can buy Sniper Elite 4 here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Sniper Elite III

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Prevent the Nazis from building a doomsday weapon.

PC Release: July 1, 2014

By Ian Coppock

So often, the Sunday retro review is used as a chaser to catch the shortcomings of Wednesday’s big reviews. It’s become a depressingly familiar pattern, especially during this year’s tourney of big-budget holiday releases. Today’s review of Sniper Elite III marks two chasers in one: a hopeful chance to get some real stealth tactics after StarCraft II: Nova Covert Ops dropped the ball, and to build upon the mechanics of Sniper Elite V2, which were rough around the edges. Hopefully the developers of V2 were able to learn from their mistakes in crafting this new game, and move the series along in a meaningful way. That always happens with sequels! …Right?

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Sniper Elite III is a third-person shooter created by Rebellion Developments, a cabal of English game designers with a flair for graphic head shots. Despite what the title “Sniper Elite III” implies, the game is actually a prequel to Sniper Elite V2, taking place a few years before the first game and in an entirely new setting.

Sniper Elite III takes place in 1942, when World War II was still in full swing and when the Axis still stood a massive chance of winning the war. The game shifts the Sniper Elite series’ focus from Europe to the war in North Africa, one of the most pivotal, and most underappreciated, theaters of World War II. The game features the return (or rather, debut) of Karl Fairburne, the gravely-voiced OSS sniper from Sniper Elite V2, and Sniper Elite III opens as he joins the British defense of Tobruk, Libya.

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Karl returns to snipe more Nazis and kick more German hinturn.

Although the Brits lose control of Tobruk, they’re impressed by the heavy casualties Karl inflicts upon the Germans, and he’s seconded to British naval intelligence to partake in a special mission. Franz Vahlen, a top-ranking Nazi general and one of Hitler’s proteges, has been spotted traveling around Africa under heavy guard. Given Vahlen’s outspoken support of super-weapon research, the Allies are worried that he’s building something big out in the desert. Karl is also convinced that Vahlen is up to something especially nefarious, and sets off across the burning sands of North Africa to find and kill him.

Although Karl has the tacit support of the British army, he is almost always just as isolated as he was (or will be) in Sniper Elite V2. Though he’s adept at using the terrain to his advantage, he’ll still have to contend with the Third Reich’s elite Afrika Corps and their Italian allies in his quest to find Vahlen. As always, though, one bullet has the potential to change history, and Karl sneaks off into the desert with precisely that goal in mind.

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Breathe in…. breathe out… breathe in…

Like its predecessor (or sequel, depending on how one looks at it) Sniper Elite III is a third-person shooter that emphasizes stealth over shooting. Unlike many of its shooter contemporaries, Sniper Elite III sends players on lone wolf missions deep into enemy territory, with no backup and few options should they be spotted. Because Karl has no backup, is heavily outnumbered, and goes down in just a few shots, players who want any hope of success in Sniper Elite III will stay quiet. Sure, they can try to go in guns blazing, but they won’t get far.

With all of these factors in play, players have to look for means of mission completion other than SHOOT ALL THE THINGS. There are a lot of tactical opportunities out there in the desert, and taking advantage of them requires creativity and a keen attention to detail (something that linear FPS games usually do not demand these days). As such, stealth and shooter fans alike found common ground in Sniper Elite V2, but the question remains. What changes does Sniper Elite III bring to Sniper Elite V2‘s decent but roughshod production?

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What new challenges lie in this land?

Well, for starters, Sniper Elite III allows players to create and customize their own loadouts. As Karl, players can select from a wide array of sniper rifles, secondary weapons, and pistols. Whether it’s a Japanese bolt-action or the infamous Mosin Nagant from Russia, Karl has quite the reach when it comes to procuring firearms. Players can also choose from a wide variety of other tools, including health kits, hand grenades, land mines, and tripwire mines. Best of all, each weapon can be customized with different stocks, scopes, triggers, and other peripherals, allowing players to alter their rifle’s stats to suit their playstyle. Players who prefer total stealth, for example, will want to add peripherals that increase range and effective accuracy.

For Sniper Elite III to give players so much freedom in picking guns is fantastic. Anyone who’s detail-oriented enough to appreciate the game’s stealth will also appreciate being able to execute that in the manner that best suits them. Players will have a chance to pick and modify their loadout from each mission, and can maintain up to four concurrent loadouts for different mission profiles. For anything else that can be said about Sniper Elite III, it does a great job of allowing for an assassin’s greatest asset: preparation.

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Decisions, decisions…

Once Karl has selected his loadout and tools, it’s time to head out into the field. In significant contrast to the levels of Sniper Elite V2, which allowed for a few different paths but were still mostly linear, Sniper Elite III‘s levels are wide open. Karl will usually start at the bottom of each map, and complete various objectives that are scattered randomly around a circular map. This level design overhaul is a welcome change for the Sniper Elite series, as it grants players much more freedom in how they pursue their goal. Instead of being able to sneak through one of a few houses, as in Sniper Elite V2, players can use the versatility of Sniper Elite III to find many more paths. Does Karl sneak through a cave and take the Germans out from behind? Or snipe them from a tall cliff?

On that note, Sniper Elite III‘s levels also contain a lot more vertical variety than those of Sniper Elite V2. Karl can ascend up rocky hillsides or hunker down in oases; either route works for reaching the target. Each level also contains a lot of open and closed areas, from wide desert dunes to claustrophobic slot canyons. Karl will also wind his way through a diverse palette of ancient ruins, desert villages, military bunkers, and other structures. The sheer variety of terrain, buildings, and paths in Sniper Elite III comprises a remarkable improvement over that of Sniper Elite V2, one that players will be all too eager to take advantage of.

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Sniper Elite III’s levels are some of the shooter genre’s most diverse.

The gameplay of Sniper Elite III has also received a significant overhaul from that of Sniper Elite V2. The two biggest, most immediately noteworthy changes are that Sniper Elite III abandons its predecessor’s health regeneration system in favor of first aid kits, and also does away with any sort of cover system. Neither change may seem all that big at the outset, but they’re actually very clever implementations for a stealth game. With first aid kits, players can’t just charge into battle and take cover to regenerate when things get too hairy. Since Karl has to use first aid kits, and can only carry so many of them, this forces players to be much more careful about what fights they pick. Likewise, the lack of a cover system means that players have to manually duck behind objects instead of just magnetizing to a wall until a patrol passes.

The actual shooting gameplay hasn’t changed too terribly much, though. Karl can still tag enemies with his binoculars and, of course, squeeze the trigger to shoot fascists until their bodies are sufficiently riddled with lead. Sniper Elite III does afford the player more tactical opportunities, though, like loud noises to mask shots and the ability to make melee kills. The gloriously gory x-ray kill-cam returns with more detail and viscera than ever, allowing players to see the internal damage of most every sniper shot fired. This system does get a bit old after seeing it for the 100th time… but not that old. Sniper Elite III also includes a few multiplayer modes that pit snipers against each other rather than NPCs. They’re okay, but nothing to write home about, and the online community has died down a lot in the last two years.

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The x-ray kill-cam returns better and bloodier than ever.

Another major change Sniper Elite III makes to its gameplay is a complete revamp of enemy vehicle encounters. In Sniper Elite V2, vehicles made easy targets because one bullet to the gas tank would take it out and all its surrounding troops with it. In Sniper Elite III, most vehicles’ vulnerable points are heavily armored, requiring Karl to shoot them 3-4 times before he can pierce a gas tank or radiator. This change makes vehicles incredibly dangerous foes in Sniper Elite III, as they should be, and forces players to contend with a foe that will know their location with every shot. Sniper Elite III also introduces a wider array of vehicles, bringing Panzers back from Sniper Elite V2 but also introducing light tanks, turret trucks, and other vehicles.

Finally, Sniper Elite III‘s enemy AI has received a hefty tune-up after the overpowered omniscience of Sniper Elite V2‘s foes. Whereas one wrong move in Sniper Elite V2 would alert every German in Berlin, the enemy AI in Sniper Elite III is much fairer. Players have a bit more time to get behind cover if spotted, and enemies react with shock and surprise at seeing Karl instead of a half-second gun-sling. Sniper Elite III also does a better job of tracking enemies’ location of Karl, giving players more elbow room to slip away and try again after the alarms die down. This isn’t to say that Sniper Elite III is easy, but the challenge it offers has been polished down to a more fun, reasonable level.

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In a complete flip from Sniper Elite V2, getting spotted by a tank is now dangerous, and getting spotted by one soldier is no big deal.

Another thing that Sniper Elite III gets right is its setting. There’s nothing wrong with the bombed-out European ruins, per se, but that motif has been done to death in dozens of World War II games over the years. By taking the action to North Africa, Sniper Elite III avoids looking like another grimy European grind-fest and espouses a novel setting rarely discussed by historians, students, or the general public these days. The scorching African desert, and all the jungles, oases and savannahs it hides, are to the ruins of Berlin as day is to night, and what a nice change of pace it is.

On top of all of that, Sniper Elite III looks beautiful. The environments burst with color and contrast despite what a desert setting might imply, and each map espouses all sorts of different terrain, from canyons to villages to dunes. Character animations are smooth (Karl’s awkward prone animation from Sniper Elite V2 has been fixed), as are the animations of tanks and artillery. The world is coated with grit from high desert winds and incoming storms. The sound design accompanying this world is also in good shape; enemies speak at a normal volume (unlike in Sniper Elite V2) and the world includes noises from wildlife, machinery and warfare. All in all, it’s a compelling package of a world and a visual feast to boot.

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Ooooooh…

For all that Sniper Elite III has improved upon with its gameplay, visuals, and level design, the one area that it fails to elevate to that same height is the story. In Sniper Elite V2, Karl’s mission to find the scientists behind the V2 rocket program was less a narrative and more a series of checkpoints. Start a mission, kill a guy, end mission. Unfortunately, Sniper Elite III has the exact same problem. Karl remains just as unknowable and uninteresting as he was in V2, speaking only during the mission briefing and maybe a few times during the actual levels. In the case of the latter, it’s almost always Karl talking to himself about a better sniping position instead of, y’know, meaningful dialogue. Karl finds an object or kills a guy in one level, it leads him to the next one, rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat.

Sniper Elite III also fails to elicit an emotional connection from the player, and its attempts to do so are pretty pathetic. In Sniper Elite V2, the game tried to make players feel panic when the last scientist standing tried to launch the V2 rockets, but the tension only lasted one level, so the panic had died pretty much as it’d begun. Sniper Elite III tries to coax empathy from the player when a buddy of Karl’s dies during a mission, but he’s a buddy we’ve only known for that one mission. If Rebellion hopes to create a narrative worthy of remembrance, they’ll have to try a lot harder than a level-long arc of emotion. Indeed, the game’s premise makes little sense either. Why are the Nazis building a super-weapon in North Africa? Wouldn’t it make more sense to do that in Germany, where there’s more infrastructure and security? For all the beauty afforded by Sniper Elite III‘s new setting, it and the narrative within it are completely disconnected.

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Come back! I have to murder you!

Even though Sniper Elite III‘s narrative is a bust, this game gets massive props for doing an uncommonly good job of improving over its predecessor. Rebellion’s story writing still needs a lot of work, but the studio did a fantastic job at overhauling and fine-tuning literally every other facet of their game design. From level design to gameplay, from audio design to graphics, there is no area of game development that Sniper Elite III doesn’t represent a considerable improvement in. Hopefully next February’s Sniper Elite 4, which will send Karl off to 1943 Italy, will complete the puzzle by adding a compelling narrative. For now, shooter and stealth fans will definitely want to check Sniper Elite III out. Its story ain’t no epic, but its gameplay makes it a great tactical shooter.

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You can buy Sniper Elite III here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.